Friday, September 4, 2009

In Praise of Scribes

In Clay Shirky’s s book, Here Comes Everybody (2008), he has a brief discussion of the fate of the poor scribe who, upon the introduction of the printing press, did not realize his fate was sealed and his profession’s utility would disappear. The scribe’s specialization was replaced by what Shirky characterizes as “mass amateurization,” or the radical shift away from an enforced scarcity professional skills (i.e. the guilds) is replaced with a new plenty.

It is important to note, as does Shirky, that the invention of the printing press did not immediately result in mass amateurization. Rather, it took over a hundred years to construct a rational intellectual infrastructure, as well as the accumulation of capital to take advantage of the technology. Between the Guttenberg Bible and the Enlightenment was a chaotic period of creative destruction as people tried to figure out how to use the new technology.

As more printing presses fall silent it is not difficult to draw a parallel from that time to our experiences with mass, digital, universal publication tools. The same transition that occurred between Guttenberg’s technology and Martin Luther’s radical realignment is now sweeping through our own society and economies. The newspaper industry is just the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ Companies, institutions and social groups are beginning to reorient to the new realities. They are experiencing broad access to mass media. (Governments are also feeling it too. The unfortunately violent and extreme the events that unfolded in Iran are but a microcosm – though not to those living through it – to the changing relationship of governments to the governed.)

Individuals gain tremendous advantage through mass amateurization and reformation of social capital. We have new avenues for expressions of democratic will, personal expression and collective action that accomplish important economic and social objectives with more efficient use of capital. The evidence of what is gained is well documented in thousands of breathless pages in magazines, books and blog posts. And while those positives are real and material, we also have to note how much we lose in the bargain as well.

The waning of professionalism (or elitism…let’s call it what it is) that is being buried under the avalanche of seemingly ubiquitous amateur production capacity has made it more difficult for us to know what is essential. Does a professional ‘author’ have more value to offer? Or is the unleashing of the amateur’s offerings provide the diversity and value we have been missing? The effects can be seen as traditional professional print journalism, long lauded as the “Fifth Estate” is seemingly speeding into oblivion. We can also see the waning of professionalism in publishing where book shelves (virtual or not) are bulging, but reading remains flat or even declining.

Shirky, tongue firmly in cheek, gave his take on the dilemma in a chapter entitled In Praise of Scribes. The title refers to Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim, who published Laude Scriptorum (“in praise of scribes”). That he had it printed instead of copied by hand (irony) in 1492 (irony 2.0). As Columbus was making landfall in the New World, the elites were seemingly fighting a rear-guard action against the wholesale change they saw happening in their world. However, rather than look at Trithemius’s treatise as a valiant, but pointless attempt to hold back progress, I think that we should consider it, perhaps sadly, as a mourning of the art and skill of the scribe’s profession that would be lost.


The lesson I believe is that we should not preserve our own scribal practices, but rather promote the preservation of important traditions. The intellectual rigor, the attention to detail, the expectation and acquisition of skill of the scribe’s era should be preserved and respected in our own. In Praise of Scribes should be a warning to us today about what we may lose in the process of technological change.

In legacy broadcasting – television or radio – the technology has little to do with the content that is being distributed on the network. Yes, there is some higher level structuring of the content based on the spectrum, data exchange and so on, but it is not like the shaping of the content with our current and emerging tools. In other words, the “form factor” of content is now, more than ever, tied to the “form factor” of the technology; perhaps never more so since the printing press was the main broadcast platform. With a book, content is limited to words on a page presented in the accustomed order – even Joyce’s radicalization of the written word in Finnegan’s Wake was set down and broadcast in the same manner as Betty Crocker’s Cook Book. (For all of Joyce’s rule breaking, scribes actually had more freedom. At least the scribes could draw in the margins…)

The evolving form factors of technology – how devices receive and transmit content, both the limitations and opportunities - are incredibly freeing. They allow the combination of various forms of communication – video, animation, audio and the written word. They are also limiting: all you are going to have (at least for now) is 140 characters via short message service SMS. Twitter and its foundational technology, SMS, are excellent in their ability to demonstrate how tightly wound is the package of content and technology form.

Twitter is instructive as we consider how we can innovate within the limitations of each technological medium. Within the 140 character limit in each Twitter message, users have spawned new language formats that give Joyce a run for his money. Take a recent tweet: {IsCool: this thurs 1pm et: #pdfnetwork call w @katrinskaya (fixed!) on #iranelection and power of social media http://bit.ly/hxfUe #pdf 09}. To those not actively using SMS, Twitter and hashtags, this is almost undecipherable but to the practiced twitter user, this is a clear and economical message, and allows the reader to follow the idea onto the next communication platform for more information. Beyond the innovation in the language, the brilliance of Twitter is its easy integration, almost without barrier, as an instantaneous communication channel, just one in a multi-part stream of communication channels that we use to connect with our world.

I am struck by Isaac Asimov’s vision of personal transportation in his Robot series. In his image of the future, our streets will be replaced by parallel ribbons of moving walkways. The outermost ribbons, those next to buildings, will be moving relatively slowly, with ribbons becoming progressively faster as you move inward. The fastest ribbon capable of ushering you over great distances of the city. Asimov even dreams of young boys and girls playing tag or follow the leader by nimbly jumping from ribbon to ribbon, trying to lose the other players.

At our disposal are communication vehicles that operate just like Asimov’s ribbons. In fact, by choosing to distribute this essay (going over 500 words it’s an essay) via a blog I am choosing a ribbon on the outside of the communication road. As an alternative, I could publish this as a self-published, online book or a monotonous series of tweets, which is at the fast center of the communications road. However, turning this into a series of tweets is a particularly bad idea; the format of that “inner ribbon” technology does not match the content.

The essay format, only hangs together if you can lead the reader steadily along a pathway of concepts to a series of conclusions. Twitter is much more successful in bringing you short bites of information, particularly if they are ephemeral. The form factor of an observation “floating across your transom” is better communicated through a portable, ubiquitous and immediate technology. Indeed, it is the very nature of the 140 character limitation that prompts the user to send out ephemera, rather than essays. (Note Pear Analytic’s recent study that 40.55% of tweets being ‘pointless babble’)

The form factor limitations in the content/technology bundle has not only led to internal innovation with the language, but also started to deeply affect the type and quality of content being produced. By its very nature Twitter is successful at two particular types of content: linking and thinking out loud.

Starting with an SMS and linking to additional sources of information replicating the web experience, as people pass articles, video and other content to each other through tweets and re-tweets. But this was only possible with the creation and widespread usage of URL shortners such as TinyURL. By mashing down long URL strings into bite-sized pieces we now get the fragment of a topic sentence, tapas of an idea, with a compelling little link to the main dish. As Shirky pointed out in his book, information overload is only happens when you don’t have the right filters. I suspect that the TinyURL is a proto-filter crawling its way out of the muck. The TinyURL phenomenon is akin to the elongated footnote, a David Foster Wallace moment that can take tight ideas using a marker that leads users to broader expository information. (In fact, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest might be the best long-form version of what I am talking about.)

Because of the ephemeral nature of SMS it encourages the instant transmission of whatever crosses one’s mind, even if banal and self-reverential. Dipping into a person’s stream of conscious does not result in much clarity (again, try to read just one page of Finnegan’s Wake), but taken as a whole, over time, even the most trivial series of thoughts starts to tell us something about the greater whole: how the person thinks, what is their point of view, what attracts and repels them, and so on. The tweets are a part of a pathway, but have a very specific purpose of providing support to the big thoughts; the stream of consciousness thinking that moves the intellectual (or what stands for intellectual) content along.

A Modest Proposal: Twitter Scholar
What would a Twitter Scholar look like? Twitter is part of the family of instant communication and collaborative tools – mobile video, commenting, chat and IM. They all have an important place in our intellectual discourse. The form factor of the technology, while limiting the morphology of the content, has a specific role that I feel is currently under exploited. We need an injection of professionalism without the elitism; knowledge but with a common touch. We can obtain these old-world scribe-like values by using the new tools wisely, even as they spread the content far and wide.

I would propose that we recruit a tribe of Twitter Scholars, those that will adopt the use of Twitter to help open up the elite institutions of art, research, science, literature and even journalism. The “Scholar Project” could have two goals: the first would be to utilize the spirit of openness implicit in Twitter-like instant communications to broaden intellectual discourse and give the wider audience insight into the thinking of influential people. The second goal would be to demonstrate how the new communication tools can widely distribute key bits of knowledge in what can be esoteric fields.

How would a Twitter Scholar project work? I would envision empowering (e.g. paying a small stipend) a cadre of interesting, influential thinkers who have an appreciation for openness…those that have a natural appreciation of teaching and mentoring. The Twitter Scholars would be paired with an expert to support their maturation with the tool to not only build skills, but continue to evolve the most appropriate framework and ontology to help the Scholar provide real value to the masses of followers. The critical issue that needs addressing is that the limitation (morphology) of the technology is the biggest perceived barrier to intellectual content. We need to learn how to do this and that is one of the most important qualities of the project: utilizing scholars to create a new content format that takes elite concepts and mash them into Shirky’s mass amateur channel.

A critical objective of the project is to humanize, and create a broader appeal, for the intellectual ideas of our modern age. Once we have acclimated Scholars to the technology, they can then use it to “pierce the veil” of their intellectual live with those events, emotions and encounters that create their frame of reference to their thinking. I believe that while many concepts are difficult to unravel, they are all informed by our human connection. To know the frustrations of picking up the laundry, the interesting thought they just had, the fascinating person they just met, what they thought of the last movie they saw…these are the “home movies” that give you insight into what a person does to leave their mark on the world.

Beyond the ephemera of a life, the medium is also under exploited as a way of parsing complicated concepts into strings of logic, albeit only 140 characters long. These singular bits of data, comprise a digital mind that is by far more complicated then the individual bits themselves. The Twitter Scholar will be an interesting opportunity to model the bits into bytes and then into terabytes of complexity.

Lastly, this medium stretches us beyond the one to many communication modes by creating new channels that allow for not only discourse, but openness that can remix content as well as bloom new concepts like the progression of Mandelbrot set. The limitation of the tools is to structure these complex ever twisting conversations: there is no democratic structure to manage the wisdom of the crowd.

The through line for the Scholar project has to be the Scholars themselves to constantly reflect back on the Twitter feed. The last component of the project is activating that teaching instinct within the Scholar to respond, provide feedback and engage with the community. This is going to require the filters Shirky discusses to discover the interesting conversations, provocative points and the sway and flow the interactions.

While the Twitter Scholars project is a modest proposal… …it is in a direct line with poor Abbot Trithemius’s sad embrace of new technology for loss of an era. Let us not let the Abbot wander about among his errata, but prop him in from of an iPhone and Tweetdeck and compete in the marketplace for minds of future generations.

4 comments:

Wilson said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Wilson

http://cardrawing.net

Rob Bole said...

Wilson - thank you! I appreciate the comment. I really write this stuff to help me think through problems, but it is very, very nice to have someone think about it too.

Anytime you think I am wrong, or missing a point...let me know.

Cheers
R

Mark Murphy said...

Rob,

Wow. Brilliant. I loved the comparison of games of tag on Asimov's transport ribbons to the evolving structures of public intercourse.

You've distilled the essential value of Twitter too I think and articulated its place in hive mind.

Keep working on this one (there a several typos) because I think it's going to get some attention and be remembered.

Did you share it with your friends at the Media Lab? Let me know if you do. That would be fun to watch!

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